Heat (1995), written and directed by Michael Mann, is one of my all-time favourite films. I remember the circumstances under which I first saw it: in a hotel room in Florida in 1996, too young to properly appreciate the skill with which Mann was telling the story, but captivated by the end result all the same,
On the surface, Heat is a simple hunt/pursuit story, the tale of Los Angeles cop Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino) and professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). Both are driven men who live for their chosen line of work:
“I do what I do best: I take down scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.” — Neil McCauley to Vincent Hanna
All the “standard” action movie elements are there: several robberies and shoot-outs, a car chase, a tense personal encounter between the two leads, vignettes illustrating the personal costs of their decisions on those around them, and of course a final and deadly one-on-one confrontation. The story itself is not terribly special or innovative, but Heat is a work of genius because of how well the story is told: it’s as much a classical tragedy in a modern setting as it is an action film.
One lovely attribute of Heat is that it perfectly exemplifies the three-act structure of beginning, middle and end. It’s easy to form that tripartite split crudely; Mann does it with the elegance of a master painter, not the austerity of a draughtsman. As the viewer, you can feel which act you’re in from the way the tempo changes. The first act ends with all the pieces on the board, as Chekhov would have demanded, in the cut from Hanna driving his alienated daughter (Natalie Portman) home in mid-day to a long pass over night-time LA that takes us to McCauley’s sophisticated “on the prowl” attack on the precious metals depository; it’s a simple transition, but well-timed. (Incidentally, I love how little screen time Portman’s character gets, so that she becomes as incidental to us the audience as she does to the main characters, thereby heightening the shock of her suicide attempt.) The better act transition, though, is that in a brilliant play upon the expectations of audiences conditioned by hundreds of Hollywood action films, the action climax of the film — the cops vs. robbers gun battle in downtown LA that follows a bank heist gone wrong — is the end of the second act and not the film entire. It takes some storytelling guts to keep the allegro vivace out of the final movement, and instead make the third act about the culmination of tragedy instead of violence per se.
Heat is almost classical in its use of tragedy. What I mean by that is that the treatment of each character bears witness to the dictum that “character is fate”; each one’s doom clearly follows from their character and the small impetus of initial chance. It is an interesting exercise to follow the events of the film backwards and see where it all begins to go wrong — from that moment, everyone is on course for disaster with very little choice in the matter. In my view, that critical moment comes in the build-up to the initial heist on the security truck, when McCauley crew member Michael Cheritto (played by Tom Sizemore) tells the hired gun Waingro (Kevin Gage),
“Stop talking, okay, Slick?”
Maybe Cheritto is getting annoyed with Waingro’s questions about the McCauley crew and their tight relationship; maybe he just wants to focus on the road and job ahead. Either way, that injunction to shut up lights Waingro’s fuse. From there, it’s all downhill. His temper already frayed, Waingro just cannot stop himself from killing a guard who doesn’t need to be killed, just to satisfy his blood-lust. McCauley is clearly loyal to his closest associates despite his dictum of having no attachments (or is he simply professional?); dually, he is merciless in dealing with betrayal, and so he can’t help but try to rid himself of the loose cannon Waingro by killing him — but fails, and sets Waingro on course for revenge. The needlessly bloody robbery attracts the attention of Hanna and his team. Hanna will not let go of his prey; McCauley won’t let go of his, be it the bank he has targeted, Waingro, or another betrayer, Van Zant. McCauley has the ability to turn the tables on Hanna and walk away to safety, but ultimately he fails to exercise that ability. He wisely walks away empty-handed from the precious metals depository, but then can’t abandon the bank job (his “last job” — why is it always “one last job”?).
McCauley’s hubris leads him into the ill-fated bank job; his nemesis comes from an unexpected, half-forgotten direction: not Hanna’s dogged pursuit, but Waingro, who indirectly tips off the police about the bank job just in time for them to be waiting for the McCauley crew as they exit the bank. The resulting shoot-out costs the lives of Cheritto and Breedan (Dennis Haysbert) and the health and marriage of Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer); but, critically, McCauley can’t let go the possibility of vengeance against his original betrayer, Waingro, and that costs him his own life. Hanna wins a pyrrhic victory, the intensity of his pursuit having deprived him of yet another marriage (although I come away with the impression that he and Justine (Diane Venora) might actually stay friends), while his dispatch of McCauley deprives him of an opponent with whom he shared a mutual understanding and respect.
Other characters, too, have their tragic arcs brought about by the product of their character with the circumstances. Cheritto can’t resist the lure of the adrenaline rush of another heist. Shiherlis too, thanks to his love of gambling and the resulting debts, can’t resist the bank job; his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd), resolves her big decision at the film’s end in a way true to her first dialogue — her son stays with her, no matter what. Like McCauley, Van Zant also falls because of his need to take revenge, in a financial as well as bloody sense. Breedan ends up dead in the bank heist instead of going straight on parole because he chooses the personal satisfaction of a moment of revenge against his corrupt employer. Indeed, Heat could be seen as a meditation on the consequences of revenge: it devastates the lives of all those it touches.
“You don’t live with me, you live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That’s the only thing you’re committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through.” — Justine Hanna to Vincent Hanna